Long Train Running: The Railroads in Rochester, Pt. 2

A train crosses over the mill race near Court Street circa 1893. From: City of Rochester.

The second half of the nineteenth century was a period marked by considerable growth in Rochester. Established businesses expanded, new enterprises started, and the city’s population increased dramatically. Rochester continued to be a “destination city”; people came to Rochester for a good job and then stayed here.

The city’s rapid expansion provided economic justification for the development of additional railroads in Rochester.

The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, controlled by the Vanderbilt family, remained the dominant rail company in Rochester at the end of the Civil War, while the Erie Railroad continued to operate out of its passenger station on Exchange Street. As the pages of the local City Directories demonstrate, a few new railroads began servicing Rochester in 1870.

The Lake Ontario Shore Railroad brought people out of the city to the new resorts and beaches then being developed. The Spencer House and the Allen House hotels were two major destinations for patrons of this line.

The Spencer House on Lake Ontario was a major recreational destination from 1873-1882. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad advertised connections to the Midwest and boasted of their elegant drawing room cars and their “Palace” sleeping cars.

From: Rochester City Directory, 1870.

The Rochester Stateline Railroad was created in direct response to the growth of Rochester. The bustling city needed a direct and dedicated route to deliver an abundant supply of coal from Pennsylvania. This line not only transported coal, but also serviced passengers to the south of Rochester. Connections could be made there to other rail lines in the Southern Tier.

From: Rochester City Directory, 1880.

Railroads formed and folded, merged and were absorbed. The Rochester & Pine Creek Railroad, for instance, was first listed in the 1870 City Directory but was out of operation by 1871. Some railroads seemingly only existed for the purpose of being bought out by larger lines, such as the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.

Another option for railroad developers in Rochester was to build a line and then lease it out. This was the case with the Avon, Geneseo, and Mt. Morris Railroad, which was leased in perpetuity to the New York Central.

As the local rail system grew, so too did railroad support facilities. A new roundhouse was built on Atlantic Avenue in 1872, and new switching and freight yards cropped up on Goodman Street two years later as the demand for railroad service outgrew the switching yard by Brown Square.

The old switching yard by Brown’s Square, circa 1875. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1875.

The New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, still the dominant line in Rochester, likewise outgrew its passenger station on Mill Street and erected a new one on Central Avenue at North St Paul Street in 1883. It was the first station located on the east side of the river.

The second New York Central Railroad Station in Rochester on Central Avenue. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1888.

Other railroads also constructed new stations. The Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad, for its part, developed a depot out of the former Peter Pitkin house at 81 West Avenue (now West Main Street).

The Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad Station circa 1914-20. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railroad built their passenger station at 62 West Avenue, which still stands today as Nick Tahou’s Restaurant on West Main Street.

The Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh station circa 1915. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

As Rochester continued to grow in the final decades of the nineteenth century, so did its railroad network. By 1890, the city counted 133,896 residents, many of whom had increasing amounts of money to spend on leisure activities. Railroads helped fuel such pursuits, offering transportation to resorts like Sea Breeze and Ontario Beach. The Rochester and Glen Haven Railroad provided a 3.5-mile-long line from East Main Street to the Glen Haven resort on Irondequoit Bay. The Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg Railroad advertised “Pleasure Trips” between June and October, taking passengers out of Rochester to the north country and beyond. 

Although Rochester boasted a dozen railroads in 1890, only five remained a decade later as a result of mergers, absorptions, and failures. They were the New York Central, the Erie Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railroad, and the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which reached Rochester in 1892. These five railroads would continue to serve Rochester in the early twentieth century. Change was on the horizon, however. Just as the railroads had caused the decline of the canals, a new form of transportation would challenge the railroads: the automobile.

-Daniel Cody

Published in: on October 14, 2021 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Take this Job and Do *What* With It?: Fun with Antiquated Occupations!

Bonnet Renovator, Bell Hanger, Clairvoyant Physician.

While these might sound like the kind of bogus job titles belonging to a hapless contestant on “The Bachelorette,” or a keen yet woefully underqualified property purchaser on “House Hunters,” they are in fact actual occupations that Rochesterians once held almost 200 years ago.

From the Rochester City Directory, 1853.

A recent search through our City Directories opened my eyes to the wide world of antiquated occupations. Although I had come across a few of these old-timey titles before, like wainwright (wagon maker) and farrier (blacksmith), and was able to deduce the definitions of others (oculist = eye doctor and aurist = ear doctor), many other job names had me furrowing my brow.

From the Rochester City Directory, 1857

The first half of the nineteenth century in particular, found Rochesterians holding a host of jobs that either no longer exist, or no longer exist by their original name. Here are some of the more interesting examples…

When we now hear the word “turnkey” (perhaps uttered by a keen yet woefully underqualified property purchaser on “House Hunters”) we tend to think of a move-in ready home, but the term originally referred to a prison warden or jail keeper.

These days if one hears the word “tallyman,” it is usually being belted out by Harry Belafonte, who implored the person in question to “tally me bananas,” on his recording of the traditional Jamaican folk song, “Day-O.” The tallymen listed in our historical city directories, however, were more likely individuals that sold goods on an installment plan or those responsible for counting the number of people residing in a dwelling.

Though the name Colporteur bears a striking sonic similarity to a later iconic songwriter, the nineteenth century bearer of this title was actually a traveling book salesman, usually employed by a given organization or religious society to sell bibles and proselytizing pamphlets. 

Another traveling salesman of times past was the Yankee Notions peddler, who dealt in goods manufactured in New England. By the late 1840s, permanent Yankee Notions shops began cropping up around Rochester, offering a wide variety of items like needles, scissors, buttons, clocks, and knick-knacks.

From the Rochester City Directory, 1864.

While one might easily deduce that a “Limeburner” was a person who burned…well, lime, the purpose of the occupation is perhaps not as readily apparent. The individual in question burned limestone in a kiln not only to produce quicklime for making mortar, but also for tanneries for the purpose of removing hair from animal hides.  

Relatedly, a Morocco Dresser (who bore no connection to that country whatsoever) tanned animal skin (often goat skin) and worked with leather.

The boot and shoe industry, which made use of a good amount of leather, featured its own unique occupations. A Last Maker, for instance, created iron or wooden molds used in shoemaking, while an India Rubber Maker manufactured rain-proof overshoes, also known as galoshes.

From the Rochester City Directory, 1869.

And if a Rochester resident injured themselves on any one of the aforementioned jobs? They may have availed themselves of the services of a Thomsonian Physician, who was well versed in the use of herbal remedies popularized by the self-taught American botanist and alternative medicine pioneer, Samuel Thomson.

From the Rochester City Directory, 1838.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on September 23, 2021 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Long Train Running: The Railroads in Rochester, Part one

As we scurry about the Rochester area in the comfort of our cars, it’s difficult to conceive of Rochester as a hub of railroad traffic–unless you get caught at a rail crossing.

Although it was the Erie Canal that made Rochester the first inland American boomtown, it was the railroads that continued to feed the growth of Rochester. Rochester not only used the railroads to ship locally made products, but the city also served as a junction of commerce between New York City and the great American interior. By 1911, it was common for 700 freight cars to be scheduled out of Rochester in a single day.

A circa 1855 illustration of the first New York Central Railroad Station in Rochester, which originally appeared in Ballou’s Pictoral of 1855. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The Rochester Canal and Railway Company pioneered rail transportation in Rochester. The first local railroad was not a railroad in the modern sense–it was simply a road on rails. In 1832, iron rails were laid down in a three-mile stretch from Rochester to what was then the village of Carthage, located at the base of the lower falls on the east bank of the Genesee River.

Horses pulled cargo along the iron rails, which connected the Erie Canal with both the river and Lake Ontario. The line did not return a profit on the investment, however, and ceased operation in 1839.

Illustration of a coach-like car on the Carthage Railroad. Date and source of original illustration unknown. From: City of Rochester.

Western New York was growing quickly in the 1830s and since the canals were not functional in the winter, the need arose for an alternate service to connect the inland communities on a year-round basis. The transportation technology of the day reached Rochester in 1837 when the Tonawanda Railroad Line used Rochester’s first steam-powered locomotive on its route between Rochester and Batavia. The Erie Canal nevertheless proved instrumental in this new development, as the locomotive in question was delivered to Rochester on a canal barge.

Rochester’s reach expanded in 1841 when the Auburn and Rochester Railroad connected the city to Canandaigua, Geneva, and Auburn. By the following year, the line featured separate men’s and women’s lavatories on board.

A drawing of “the Young Lion,” the first engine on the Auburn and Rochester Railroad. From: City of Rochester.

In 1844, Rochester became part of the statewide rail connection when rail lines from the East and West were joined, making rail travel between Buffalo and Albany possible. The following decade, a new line was laid out to the village of Charlotte, which facilitated the transfer of people and products from the eastern/western rail lines and canal systems to the Great Lakes.

The 1850s also witnessed the consolidation of ten small independent rail lines to form the New York Central Railroad. By 1853, all rail lines through Rochester were owned by New York Central. This created a monopoly which allowed the Central to dictate rail rates. The need for a competitive rail line was clear.

The Rochester and Genesee Valley Railroad answered this need in 1854, creating a route running to the south of Rochester that connected to the Erie Railroad. This development marked the start of a long struggle against the power of the New York Central. (It is interesting to note that at this time, there was no universal standard as to the gauge of the rail tracks. Some companies built their lines with 6 feet between the rails while others were built at 4 feet.)

Map of the Railroads of the State of New York prepared under the direction of the Railroad commissioners, by David Vaughn (1856). From the Map Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

In an attempt to dominate passenger traffic, the New York Central built Rochester’s first passenger station between Mill Street and State Street in 1854. Their freight yard and switching yard by Brown’s Square became a constant junction of activity.

The first New York Central Station, pictured in 1865. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

Trains servicing Rochester were on the cutting edge in providing amenities for their customers. Sleeper cars were first seen in Rochester in 1858. Smoking cars followed the next year, and in 1860, travelers began enjoying the convenience and comfort of dining cars. While passengers enjoyed many benefits from train travel, working on the railroads, it should be noted, was hard and dangerous. Many workers were killed or maimed in accidents. The train crossings in Rochester were all at grade level and dozens of people were injured or killed at the these junctions each year.

The Civil War drove the expansion of rail service in Rochester and solidified the city as a vital railroad junction. The 1860s saw rail traffic and tonnage quadruple in and out of Rochester. On any given day, 60-plus trains left Rochester carrying people and products. Demands on business justified the construction of spur lines and additional sidings. These developments proved significant not only for the war effort but for the resulting job opportunities the lines brought to the Rochester area.

As the economy of Rochester grew after the war, so did the railroads. The years to come would bring challenges to both the railroads and the residents of Rochester.

-Daniel Cody

Published in: on September 9, 2021 at 5:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Missing Link: The Origins and Evolution of the White Hot

Few food items are more synonymous with summertime in Rochester than the White Hot. Though Zweigle’s is the most famous manufacturer of the local delicacy, it was first produced by a lesser-known company.

The details of the White Hot’s origin story lie largely with the recollections of Frederick Tobin, the first president of the Tobin Packing Company (formerly the Rochester Packing Company). According to the meat magnate, the iconic tubular treat was first dispensed at the Front Street establishment of the Ottman Brothers.

George J. and John J. Ottman. From: Democrat & Chronicle, September 27, 1925.

Brothers George J. and John J. Ottman were the sons of German immigrant, Joseph Ottman. Born in Hammelburg in 1846, the elder Ottman began working as a clerk at a Front Street meat market in 1870, before establishing his own sausage shop, J. Ottman’s, on the same street in 1875.

The following 1875 Plat Map shows Ottman’s shop at 30 Front Street. The street would later be renumbered, with the shop taking on the address of 45 Front Street.

Ottman’s shop was located at 30 Front St in 1875. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1875.
The same location had been renumbered 45 Front Street by 1888. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1888.

Just two years after setting up shop, Ottman unfortunately suffered an untimely death at the age of 31.

His market was taken over by fellow German immigrant August Muiso, who ran the establishment as a combination butcher shop and saloon. Merging these two businesses was a common practice on Front Street.

The same block that housed the Ottman property also featured the sausage-making saloons of Caspar Wehle and John G. Zweigle (not to be confused with C. Wilhelm Zweigle, who founded the current company of the same name). Such shops typically offered customers sausages as a free meal to accompany their adult beverages.

Two Front Street sausage maker/saloons. From: City of Rochester Directory, 1883.

By the 1890s, Joseph Ottman’s sons, George and John, had begun working in the butcher shop formerly belonging to their father, which at that time was being run by yet another German émigré, Vincent Gruner. The brothers would assume ownership of the establishment and return their family name to 45 Front Street in 1905.

45 Front Street is the building beside the Genesee Provision Company. From: Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, N.Y.

The Ottman Brothers eventually set themselves apart from the other beer and brat dispensaries on Front Street with a recipe that, according to Frederick Tobin, had been brought over from Germany.

It isn’t known whether Joseph Ottman had also produced this type of sausage during his brief time as a butcher in the 1870s before his sons began manufacturing the meat treat in Rochester years later.

Their new sausage variety became known as the White Hot on account of its whitish-grey color. The hue was not a result of the type of meat the hot contained (which included veal, pork, and beef), but due to the fact that the meat was uncured.

The Ottmans doled out White Hots as free lunches in their butcher shop/saloon, but they soon became so popular that customers began ordering the sausages to take home. The brothers then started manufacturing them in greater quantities and selling them at local stands and stores to the delight of Rochesterians across the city. Other area butchers, recognizing the White Hot trend, followed suit.

The Ottmans sold white hots at their stand in Edgerton Park during Rochester’s Centennial Exposition. From: Rochester Times-Union, August 10, 1934.

By 1921, when Frederick Tobin became president of his meat-packing company, White Hots were all the rage in Rochester.

Tobin himself wasn’t initially impressed with the product, namely since at the time, the commercially-produced hots contained stale bread as one of their ingredients. He attempted to stop his firm from manufacturing the sausages, but his salesmen protested, claiming that local dealers said they’d refuse to buy the company’s red hots if they could no longer purchase the white variety as well.

Tobin then resumed White Hot production, but replaced the stale bread with fresh bread. This formulation continued until Tobin was informed by government food inspectors that manufacturers would have to label any meat link containing bread as imitation sausage. The recipe was tweaked, and the White Hot assumed its current incarnation.

The site of the White Hot’s creation, 45 Front Street, went on to become a restaurant and jazz club in the years following the deaths of John and George Ottman (in 1933 and 1947, respectively), before it was torn down along with the bulk of Front Street in the 1960s as part of an urban renewal initiative.

Ottman’s, or Otmen’s, Restaurant. at its 45-47 Front Street location. From: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1950.
The same area today. First Federal Plaza and Charles Carroll Park stand where Front Street once ran. From: Googlemaps, 2021.

Though the White Hot’s birthplace is long gone, the meat link’s legacy in the Rochester region remains.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on August 26, 2021 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Trade Catalogs Tell a Different Story

Trade catalogs are an invaluable historical resource. These publications are usually used to provide information about and advertise the products of a given manufacturer or retailer, but to a researcher, they represent so much more than just a collection of technical facts. If looked at from another perspective, trade catalogs can tell a different story.

The Local History and Genealogy Division of the Rochester Public Library has an extensive collection of trade catalogs, including an impressive number of volumes from the Eastman Kodak Company.

The 1898 Eastman Kodak trade catalog. From the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The earliest Kodak catalog in the collection is from 1898. It offers a much richer story than just the facts and figures listed in its pages. The cover of the issue informs the reader that Rochester, NY is represented in London, Paris, and Berlin via Eastman Kodak’s sales offices. The fact that Kodak had such a significant European presence suggests that demand for its products was already considerably high by the late nineteenth century and that the company must have developed a large manufacturing capability by this time.

The 1898 catalog also intimates that the economy and society were evolving. People were starting to have more disposable income to spend on non-essentials such as a camera. Kodak cameras ranged from $1.00 to $25.00 so that people of all economic backgrounds could enjoy the budding pastime of photography.

The catalog likewise shows that bicycling was very popular in this era.

Kodak products for avid cyclists, Eastman Kodak trade catalog, 1898. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

Kodak sold camera carriers for bicycles so their products could go anywhere easily. These products reflect the increase in leisure time that many Americans experienced at the turn of the century.

Society started to conceptualize children differently according to the catalog. Kodak, for its part, began viewing them as potential consumers—the company made using a camera so easy that even a 10-year-old child could do it, thus influencing purchases.

Viewing these catalogs through a new lens prompted me to dig further. I decided to use the years my grandmother and parents were born to see what the catalogs of those years could tell me about those eras.

My grandmother was born in 1908. What stories does the 1908 catalog tell? The publication refers to Rochester as “The Kodak City.” For the first time, the cover does not feature a man. Instead, a single woman in a flowing gown is shown holding a camera. She appears to be representing an average woman; neither very wealthy nor very poor.

The 1908 Eastman Kodak trade catalog was the first to feature a woman on the cover. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

Simplicity was still the call of the day with the Kodak slogan, “You push the button, we do the rest.” By 1908, photography was a well-established leisure activity and consumers of the era were seemingly looking for convenience; Kodak responded with “pocket cameras.”

The business culture of the times is reflected in the catalog’s boasting of Kodak being a vertically-integrated company, controlling all aspects of manufacturing to reduce costs so the product would be affordable to the masses. A lack of knowledge about industrial pollution is also displayed with Kodak’s claim of having the tallest smokestack in America to “carry off the acid fumes.”

My parents were born during the Great Depression. The Depression did of course affect Rochester, but our area was not as adversely affected as other parts of the country, thanks in part to Kodak. So, what do the trade catalogs reveal about the 1930s?

First is that Kodak continued to thrive and provide jobs in Rochester, and not only with the company itself. The huge number of employees who made the products that filled the 1935-1936 catalog supported an array of periphery businesses in Rochester, which added to the economic well-being of the community.

The cover of the 1935-36 Eastman Kodak trade catalog. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The catalog also reflects the fundamental values of society during the Depression, highlighting the importance of family. The cover of the 1935-1936 catalog shows a toddler taking off her shoes and socks. The very next page is a snapshot of family activity, a dad and his son going fishing.

A father and son enjoying a moment in the 1935-36 Eastman Kodak trade catalog. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

Even before the Kodak products are listed, family values set the stage. Throughout the catalog, Kodak stresses the inclusion of their products in quality family time. A young man is seen playing the guitar on a porch swing, a little boy is cutting his cake on his third birthday, a young woman is seen climbing a ladder out of the water after going swimming, and a young boy is pictured playing with his electric toy train. The underlying message throughout the catalog is that the products listed could help capture these memorable family moments.

“I gave my love a cherry…” A young man entertains two female friends. Eastman Kodak trade catalog, 1935-36. From the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.
Grab that cake! A gleeful three-year-old featured in the 1935-36 Eastman Kodak trade catalog. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.
Train Time. Eastman Kodak trade catalog, 1935-36. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The catalog also depicts the fashions of the time. Women in the catalog photos wear dresses, and the men wear dress shirts and ties. Flipping through the catalog’s pages, it is easy to tell what hairstyles were popular in the mid-1930s.

The economic conditions of the time can be deduced from the catalog as well. Kodak cameras were priced from $5.00 to $54.00, giving a sense of the income levels of the general public in 1935-36.

Our collection of trade catalogs tells so much more than the technical aspects and pricing information they showcase. By looking at trade catalogs from a different perspective, much can be learned about the past.

To view our entire collection of Kodak trade catalogs please visit:

-Daniel Cody

Published in: on August 13, 2021 at 3:01 pm  Comments (2)  

A Lot of History: the Evolution of the Parcel 5 site

The once empty lot now known as Parcel 5 has been experiencing a rebirth as of late as yoga classes and DJ nights have taken root at the site, which will soon also host RPO concerts and Rochester Fringe Festival performances.

From: City of Rochester map, 2021.

This central plot of land has been a significant site for much of Rochester’s history. Before the city was even incorporated, the block of East Main Street between Cortland and Elm (now Andrew Langston Way) was already a hub of activity.

In 1824, just seven years after the village of Rochesterville was established, Erastus Granger erected the Farmers’ Hotel on the southwest corner of Main and Elm. The sizeable hostelry, which was outfitted with a stable in the rear, soon gained a favorable reputation among farmers across the Genesee Valley.

The Farmers’ Hotel ca. 1893. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

Situated along the route of a major stage line, the inn proved convenient to farmers and other travelers making their way through town, while its central location at the “Seven Corners,” (what now comprises the area near the Liberty Pole) helped it become a favorite gathering place for locals in the village’s nascent years.

The Farmers’ Hotel marked on this 1851 map by the name of then owner J.J. Chappell. From: Plan of the City of Rochester by Marcus Smith, 1851.

Ownership of the Farmers’ Hotel switched hands a number of times over the course of the nineteenth century, but as one Democrat & Chronicle reporter opined in 1886, it remained the “only hotel in Rochester perhaps which has maintained its moral characteristics to a degree, and which still has about it the aroma of the country tavern and village inn.”

The aforementioned aroma was no doubt influenced in part by the horses stabled beside the inn. It is possible that the journalist in question felt the need to qualify the hotel’s moral characteristics due to certain colorful incidents that were known to have unfolded at the site. On one night in 1880, for instance, a guest from Wayne County “while crazy drunk in the dining-room” drew a revolver on the wife of then proprietor, Alderman Charles Watson.  

A circa 1874 advertisement for the hotel. From: City of Rochester Directory, 1874.

Fortunately, she did not suffer any injuries, and the incident seemingly did not deter her husband, who maintained ownership of the business for several years. The time-worn structure eventually closed its doors in March of 1893, by which time the site was being eyed as an ideal location for a new commercial building.

The following year, a four-story edifice with more than 50,000 square feet of space opened its doors to the public as the headquarters of the carpeting and drapery firm, Gorton & McCabe. As one satisfied customer remarked on the store’s first day, “the entire establishment is a credit to the city of Rochester.”

A circa 1895 ad for Gorton & McCabe, who erected their building on the future Parcel 5 site in 1894. From: Democrat & Chronicle, April 11, 1895.

The impressive business was nevertheless overshadowed by its successor, McCurdy’s. Originally known as McCurdy & Norwell (after early partner, William Norwell), the venture began as a dry goods store in 1901. Its founder, John Cooke McCurdy, was a Northern Irish émigré and former Philadelphia department store owner. He launched the new business in Rochester to relieve himself of the boredom that had plagued his retirement.

A postcard depicting the McCurdy & Norwell store along a busy stretch of Main Street in the early 1900s. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

McCurdy’s soon became a fixture of Rochester’s downtown landscape and as business boomed over the course of the twentieth century, so too did McCurdy’s footprint. The building underwent several expansions till it swallowed up much of the block that now constitutes Parcel 5.

The McCurdy & Norwell store took up the northeast corner of the Parcel 5 site in 1910. From: City of Rochester Plat map, 1910.
By the 1930s, the store had expanded substantially. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1935.
By 1950, McCurdy’s covered much of the future Parcel 5 site. From: Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1950.

By the time of McCurdy’s 50th anniversary in 1951, the sprawling store featured 150 departments that peddled everything from toys and clothing to furniture and major appliances.

That decade, downtown department stores across the country began facing growing competition from the lure of suburban shopping centers and the ample free parking they provided patrons. Recognizing this trend, but not wanting to abandon the center city, store executives Gilbert and Gordon McCurdy, along with Fred Forman of nearby retailer B. Forman’s, devised a plan for an indoor shopping mall that would simultaneously encase and showcase their respective flagship stores.

Exhibit Q: a scale-model of the entire mall! McCurdy’s is located on the northeast corner of the lot. From: Democrat & Chronicle, September 26, 1958.
The McCurdy’s entrance on the day of Midtown’s opening in 1962. From: Democrat & Chronicle, April 10, 1962.

It was hoped by many that Midtown Plaza, which opened in 1962, would serve as an anchor that would ensure the future economic stability and social vitality of Rochester’s downtown. By the following year, 90% of the mall’s stores had been rented out. But despite this promising start, both Midtown and McCurdy’s witnessed their customer base increasingly gravitate to suburban retailers in the ensuing decades.

McCurdy’s and Midtown decked out for the 1988 holiday season. From: City of Rochester, 1988

McCurdy’s closed its doors in 1994 and Midtown followed suit in 2008. Though these departures represented a significant loss, the empty lot that was left behind has not only served as a multifunctional gathering place, but has also helped inspire a re-envisioning of Rochester’s downtown.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on July 29, 2021 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Scrap Book Collection: A Window into the Past

A unique way to take a glimpse into the past is by looking at scrapbooks. The Local History & Genealogy Division has a vast collection of scrapbooks, many of which feature newspaper clippings compiled by Rochester residents. A considerable number of these books are accessible online via our Digital Collections page.

The collection covers a wide range of subjects including WWI Servicemen from Rochester, the Rochester Red Wings, “Colorful Streets of Rochester,” and of course, famed Rochester residents, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

Some of the many scrapbooks housed in the Local History & Genealogy Division. From: Morry, 2021.

Another scrapbook deals with a unique, yet lesser known, resident of Rochester, James A. Hard. This is one of my favorite volumes in the collection because it helps put a human face on history, offering a window into the past via a series of newspaper clippings from 1941 to 1953.

Though most Rochesterians have probably not heard of him, James A. Hard, who was born in Victor, NY on July 14, 1841, was the last verified living Civil War combat veteran in the United States.

From: Democrat & Chronicle, March 13, 1953.

The scrapbook opens with a clipping celebrating the 100th birthday of Mr. Hard at a party thrown by the Rochester chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR).  

From: Democrat & Chronicle, November 20, 1942.

Two of the other four Civil War veterans then living in Monroe County were among the attendees. There was no trouble seeing Hard’s cake as it was brilliantly illuminated by 100 red, white, and blue candles!

By the time James Hard celebrated his 103rd birthday, there were no longer any other Civil War veterans in Monroe County with whom he could trade stories. He was, however, very interested in the military careers of two of his great grandsons fighting in WWII. His favorite gift at 103? Cigars

At his birthday the following year, Hard remarked that he may be 104 but still liked to go to parties. He noted that his favorite pastimes were smoking cigars and listening to the radio.  

Party Hard. From: Times-Union, July 15, 1945.

A photo from the April 4, 1946 issue of the Times Union shows Hard feeding a bottle to his great-great-grandson. Imagine meeting that baby from 1946, now 75 years old in 2021, and being able to shake hands with someone who was held and fed by a Civil War veteran.

From: Times-Union, April 4, 1946.

In 1947, James A. Hard was the oldest living Civil War veteran in the entire country! Local Congressman Gordon Canfield made note of Mr. Hard’s milestone in a speech from the floor of Congress. At his 106th birthday party, the quick-witted veteran of Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg reflected that he would probably live to be an old man if he didn’t smoke so much.

As the number of candles on his birthday cakes grew, so did the collection of awards and accolades he amassed. In 1950, he was chosen to be the Grand Marshall of the Memorial Day parade for the second time.

From: Democrat & Chronicle, March 13, 1953.

That summer, as he approached his 109th birthday, Mr. Hard was featured in a series of articles in the Times Union that reflected on his long life and the historic events of his time.

From: Democrat & Chronicle, July 15, 1946.

Election day of 1950 saw Mr. Hard continue to exercise his right to vote, a right he first enjoyed in 1864 when he voted for Abraham Lincoln. When Hard turned 110 the following year, President Truman, a Democrat, sent a birthday greeting. This pleased the old veteran, but he quickly pointed out he had always voted Republican.

The local newspapers kept an eye on Mr. Hard. It was a great human interest story. His age and the era he represented fascinated readers. During the next year or so, his health faltered a few times, but the old soldier fought back, and his recoveries again made the papers.

Father Time finally caught up with the old warrior on March 12, 1953. Flags were ordered to fly at half-mast, and his flag-draped casket laid in state at the Masonic Auditorium. President Eisenhower sent his condolences to the family of the nation’s oldest Civil War veteran. Hundreds of people paid their respects as they lined the route of his funeral procession. James A. Hard was laid to rest in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

To learn more about this unique resident of Rochester who shook hands with General Grant and twice met President Lincoln, please go to:


-Daniel Cody

Editor’s Note: There is some contention regarding Hard’s birth year. Census data suggests he may have been born two years later than he claimed and that he had perhaps lied about his age in order to enlist in the Union Army. However, an 1843 birthdate would not have changed Hard’s status as the last surviving combat veteran of the Civil War.

Published in: on July 15, 2021 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Hi-De-Home: Cab Calloway & Family in Rochester

Local History ROCs! usually offers readers a jazz-themed post in late June in honor of the Rochester Jazz Festival. While that much-loved event is unfortunately not taking place this year, the tradition continues on our end, this time around taking a look at the Rochester roots of Cab Calloway and his family.

Cabell “Cab” Calloway III. From: Democrat & Chronicle, September 21, 1976.

While many Rochesterians have heard of the lauded bandleader (to be discussed in the second part of this series), less is known about his namesake father, who also made a mark on Rochester’s history.

Cabell Calloway Jr. (his more famous son was Cabell Calloway III) was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1878. Following graduation from Lincoln University–then the only all-Black college north of the Mason-Dixon line–he served as a clerk in a Baltimore law office, then transitioned to real estate.

After a music teacher by the name of Eulalia Reed caught Cabell’s fancy, the pair married in 1901. The couple had two daughters, Blanche and Bernice, before moving to Rochester in 1905 with Cabell’s brother Harry. It isn’t clear why the Calloways relocated to the Flower City, but it may have had something to do with the bleak state of Baltimore’s real estate market at the time.

Cabell didn’t have much luck in that line of work in his adopted hometown either and instead ended up working as a laborer and porter at various local establishments.

In 1906, seeking to ameliorate his lot and that of fellow African Americans in the city, Calloway decided to start a new branch of the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World, a fraternal organization of which he’d been a member back in Baltimore.  

From: Democrat & Chronicle, April 22, 1906.

On April 18, 1906, the Flower City Lodge No. 91 I.B.P.O.E. of the W. was formally established at Clinton Hall with 40 charter members and Cabell Calloway serving as Exalted Ruler. The order would later set up its headquarters at 285 Clarissa Street in the Third Ward (now Corn Hill).

The I.B.P.O.E. of the W. headquarters at 285 Clarissa Street. The property is now occupied by the Flying Squirrel Community Space. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1935.

The roots of the I.B.P.O.E. date back to 1899, when the first such lodge was founded in Cincinnati as an alternative to the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, which barred African Americans from membership.

Monthly dues provided Elks with financial assistance for illness and funerals, and served as a reliable means of insurance and security at a time when decent jobs and civic opportunities were limited for many African Americans.

The Flower City Lodge hadn’t been in place a fortnight when it was met with controversy. In May 1906, five I.B.P.O.E. members, Calloway included, were arrested when a member of the local white Elks, Dr. Richard Decker, complained that they were wearing badges bearing the elk head emblem of the latter organization, and that this represented a statute violation.

From: Democrat & Chronicle, May 26, 1906.

After the accused, led by Brother H. Davie Murray, were released on bail, the case was brought to police court. The I.B.P.O.E. brought in a lawyer from New York City, J. Frank Wheaton, who sought to use the case as an opportunity to affirm the rights of African Americans to form, and establish the rules of, their own organizations when they were excluded from similar white groups.

African American spectators, who represented about two thirds of the court’s audience, watched raptly as Justice Chadsey ruled in favor of the accused. He noted that the men had not worn the emblem in an attempt to collect aid, nor did they have the intent to deceive in any way. He further contended that no African American could conceivably deceive a B.P.O.E. member because the latter knew that Black men were prohibited from the order.

This legal victory was followed by another bright spot in Calloway’s life the following year when son Cabell Calloway III was born on Christmas Day, 1907.

The Calloway family in the 1910 U.S. Census. Another son, Elmer, would be born in 1912. From: U.S. Census Bureau (1910) Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910-Population.

The toddler hadn’t yet turned three when his father suffered an apparent mental break that was significant enough to merit mention in the Democrat & Chronicle.

On June 16, 1910, Calloway, whom the reporter described as being “bereft of reason,” climbed out on a pole of the Western Union Telegraph Company at Reynolds Arcade, then looped a bunch of wires around the building’s chimney and used them to launch himself through a skylight into the kitchen of the Columbia Rifle Club, where he had once worked.

The following morning, donning a dress coat and gauze shirt, he attempted to solicit subscriptions from passersby for an alleged fund to send two 70-year old men to Lincoln University. He then paid a visit to an Exchange Street saloon, where he indicated that he wanted to leave an order for 250 chauffeurs to report to him at the Central Bank.

After a friend discovered him on Main Street, Calloway was sent to the County Hospital for treatment. In June 1912, he and his family moved back to Baltimore, where he found work as a caterer.

Calloway’s listing in the 1913 Baltimore directory. From: R.L. Polk & Co. Baltimore City Directory for the Year commencing…1913. on Internet Archive. Accessed: June 28, 2021.

Sadly, the following year he was hospitalized again and passed away that October at the age of 35.

The following post in this series will trace the Rochester years of Calloway’s namesake son.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on June 30, 2021 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Military Presence in Rochester?

The events of January 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. sparked many questions. Many revolved around the presence (or absence) of military personnel. The nation’s capital necessarily has military assistance available to maintain law and order, but are such services extended to all cities? Does Rochester have a military presence? The answer is yes, and the answer is full of history.

Local militaries in urban areas such as Rochester have served multiple purposes. One is recruitment. Another is protection.

The city’s location on Lake Ontario marked it as a potential target from foreign threats at certain points in its history.

The international maritime border between the U.S. and Canada passes through the Great Lakes. From: https://www.worldatlas.com/

This geographic proximity to Canada was critical during the War of 1812. At the time, the Genesee region constituted the frontier of American expansion, and had little organized governmental protection.

In May 1814, in order to defend themselves from the British, local settlers formed a militia. The armed residents, in absence of a professional military presence, prevented the British from landing at Charlotte and thus protected the surrounding area.

As America grew, so too did the presence of organized military organizations. By 1841, the Rochester City Directory listed several Military Departments. The 23rd Division Infantry of the New York Militia, commanded by Major General Hester L. Stevens, had the largest presence.

It consisted of the 46th Brigade Infantry, which included the Separate Battalion of Calvary, the Separate Battalion (Williams) of Artillery, the Williams Light Infantry, the Rochester City Cadets, and the German Grenadiers. The 46th Brigade in Rochester also included of the 178th Regiment of Infantry, to which the Irish Volunteers were attached.

From: King’s Rochester Directory and Register, 1841.

The Rochester Union Grays, also listed in the directory, were an unattached military organization formed in 1839, commanded by Captain Lansing B. Swan. The Union Grays operated out of a building on Exchange Street. This type of unattached, volunteer military organization was popular at the time and could be activated by the state or the federal government when needed.

Rochester Union Grays flag. From: https://www.cottoneauctions.com/

These early military units met and drilled at the North wing of the Center Market on Front Street and other locations throughout the City.

The location of the Center Market on Front Street is numbered 46 on this circa 1863 map by Silas Cornell. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The Civil War intensified the need to organize men for military service. At the beginning of the war, the United States Army was very small. There was no draft in 1861 and Lincoln needed men fast. Rochester volunteers signed up with a variety of short-term units.

It was these types of organizations that helped to preserve the Union. One of the most famous of these Rochester units was the 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which fought at Gettysburg under Col. Patrick O’Rorke.

Col. Patrick Henry “Paddy” O’Rorke (1837-1863). From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local history & Genealogy Division.

Rochester’s military presence became more prominent and permanent following the opening of the Rochester Arsenal in 1868.

A circa 1890 image of the Rochester Arsenal. The (remodeled) building is now home to GEVA. From: the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

Located at the corner of Clinton Avenue South and what was then Monroe Avenue (now Woodbury Blvd), the new Arsenal Building was home to the 54th Regiment of the New York State National Guard, including units from the 2nd Infantry Battalion, the 3rd Infantry Regiment, and the 3rd New York Volunteers, who served during the Spanish American War.

The New York State National Guard had outgrown the Arsenal Building by the turn of the twentieth century. A new facility, originally known as the State Armory, was constructed in 1905 on East Main Street. The massive structure was built to look like a fortress or castle.

An early twentieth century postcard of the State Armory at 900 East Main Street. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The seven-story, visually intimidating 138,000 sq. ft. building provided ample space to train soldiers in Rochester. The edifice contained a 35,000 sq. ft. arena for drilling and parading and served as the headquarters to the Third Regiment of the Fourth Brigade of the New York National Guard.

The building’s massive size lent itself to multiple purposes. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, Rochester used the Armory as a convalescent hospital for recovering influenza patients.

In 1916, the city opened an additional armory just south of the Erie Canal on Culver Road to serve as the new home of the 121st Calvary Division stables and training grounds.

The impressive-looking building contained offices, training rooms, a mess hall, saddle and supply rooms, as well as ammunition storage and an indoor firing range.

A member of the 121st Calvary inside the Culver Street Armory. From: the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, N.Y.

All three of these armories have since been repurposed as entertainment or commercial venues, but each contributed to the city’s military history and helped serve the Rochester community.

-Daniel Cody

Published in: on June 10, 2021 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Digital Collections Spotlight: The Rochester Voices’ Vietnam Veterans Oral Histories Collection

The Vietnam War. The mere mention of this event evokes varied reactions. More than 58,000 American lives lost their lives during the conflict, which was very divisive for our nation.

Educators are faced with the challenge of how to present the history of the war. Even with all the best scholarly research and writing, certain gaps in knowledge exist. Oral histories can help bridge this gap.

While books and documents can capture information, data, and analysis, oral histories help capture the emotions of history through the inflection of voices, cadence of speech, and words spoken. The interviewee and the listener create a one-to-one relationship that books strive for. Oral histories are vital tools in the collecting, preserving, and presenting of history. 

Vietnam, the site of the prolonged war which lasted from 1955-1975. From: Googlemaps, 2021.

The Vietnam Veterans Oral Histories Collection on the Rochester Public Library’s Rochester Voices website is an amazing tool to help historians, educators, students, and laypeople understand this complex period in American history.

Comprising 68 interviews, the project was a collaboration between the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 20, the Office of the City Historian, and the Monroe County Historian’s office. The collecting of the interviews was in itself unique as they were mostly conducted by students from St. John Fisher and Nazareth Colleges, who were born long after the war ended. 

The logo of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. From: https://www.vva20.org/index.php

The 67 young men and one young woman interviewed open up and share their military experiences for all to listen and learn. The interviewees represent a cross section of veterans from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and the Air Force. A running theme throughout their conversations is the controversy surrounding America’s involvement in the war.

A sample interview from the Rochester Voices Vietnam Veterans Oral Histories collection. Interviews are searchable by the time period discussed. From: http://www.rochestervoices.org

The interviews are about an hour long each and start off with basic questions to help build a composite of who the person is:  birthplace, basic education, family dynamics etc. Questions inquire as to their youthful aspirations, and their thoughts and beliefs about Vietnam prior to their military involvement. Military training is discussed as well as the deployment to duty stations. One Marine remembered, “a maniac DI, kicking trash cans and screaming at us to get up at 3am.”

Richard Switzer, of Greece, NY, leading the Rochester contingent of Vietnam veterans past the Washington Monument in 1982. From: Democrat & Chronicle, November 14, 1982.

All types of military experiences are featured in the collection. Combat is discussed frequently– the veterans talk about jungle warfare, the weapons used, the tropical heat, and the monsoon rains. One Army vet reflected on the process of being “climatized” to Vietnam. Some relate about being wounded and the aftereffects.

They detail their impressions of the people of Vietnam as well as a typical day “in country.” Sometimes the interviewees reveal very intimate thoughts and feelings. “If anyone says they weren’t scared in Vietnam, they’re lying. We were all scared of dying,” said one veteran. A very personal narrative emerges. One Marine stated quite clearly, “I was shocked at the reality of people shooting at me. It got very personal very quickly”.

In addition to describing combat, vets discuss their jobs as photographers, drivers, mechanics, technicians, medics, military police, “See Bees” (construction battalion), and other positions. The vets share their opinions and thoughts about their jobs, their comrades, their locations, and experiences both good and bad.

Experiences coming back to civilian life are also outlined, including some of the tragic consequences involved with this transition. One Navy veteran remembered, “getting the cold treatment. No one wanted to talk to me.”

The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Highland Park. Photo by David Mohney, 2006. From: City of Rochester.

Vets discuss their post-war lives and the long-term effects of the conflict. The scars of war, physical and emotional, are sometimes very deep and last a lifetime. One combat veteran sadly reflected, “I was a different person when I came home. I killed people and couldn’t get it out of my mind. I didn’t want it in my mind, so I drank a lot. I became an alcoholic and ruined relationships.”

Others share their opinions about the war itself, comparing their impressions as youths with their beliefs later in life. The collection of interviews runs the gamut of emotions, evoking both laughs and tears alike.

The Rochester Voices Vietnam Veterans Oral Histories collection is an amazing reflection of a young generation thrust into military service. It is a very personal conversation. This oral history truly reflects, and puts a human “voice” on, the good, the bad, and the ugly of Rochester’s involvement in Vietnam.

-Daniel Cody

Vietnam Veterans Oral Histories collection:

Vietnam Veterans Oral Histories

Published in: on May 27, 2021 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment